It is the mid- to late 90s in Côte-des-Neiges, an ethnic and racial stew-pot of immigrants and exiles in the heart of Montreal. A group of fifth-grade boys have been pulled together as members of a relay team. Marcelo is Chilean, Sylvain is Quebecois, and Akira Japanese. A new boy, Cléo, has just immigrated from Haiti. He is at first teased by the others, because he is the new boy, because he runs in an unusual style, but his speed is so astonishing that he is quickly embraced by the group. They are boys: their competition not racial but athletic and their kinship based on the team and its common goal. Later, in high school, things change.
Childhood friends often drift apart: interests shift, the complications of home life and teenage romance distract, small slights and disappointments create and widen separations. In this multiracial milieu, these differences are further intensified by cultural misunderstanding and inherited prejudices.
Segura’s style adds freshness and immediacy to an essentially classic tale. The translation into English of a novel written in French by a native Spanish-speaker makes for some fascinating cadences and constructions, both in description and dialogue. His use of second person narration has unique, often challenging effects. Most immediately, it draws the reader into Marcelo’s experience so that our perspective is enfolded in his and his memories become our reminders. That device, combined with frequent movement from past to present and back again (and within time-settings the occasional shift between past and present tense), confuse and unbalance us in the same way as do the fragmented nature of our own recollections: it is not always directly clear whose perspectives apply, who is saying what to whom, which particular remark or circumstance is the trigger to a particular conflict. We mostly understand our own lives in much the same way – pasting together bits and pieces, some images clear and others distorted, some out of sequence, into a collage upon which we impose order, and that we invest with linear patterns of cause and effect.
Mauricio Segura is an established journalist specializing in issues of multiculturalism. Black Alley is his first novel, originally published in French in 1998, and it is primarily an examination of those same issues. But while its thematic concentration and narrative focus are sharp and specific, its scope is much broader. It is certainly a valuable glimpse into the life and nature of conglomerate immigrant neighbourhoods, racial animosities and street violence. It is also a universal coming-of-age story. Marcelo becomes Flaco, leader of the Latino Power gang, and Cléo grows into CB, head of the Haitian gang The Bad Boys, and the tragedy of violent racial conflict between two childhood friends is what the novel is about. But is as much a story of the need to belong, and the choice that every maturing human is given and must make: will we define ourselves by what is inside us, or who stands beside us? By what we are not, or by what we are?
Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes who has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Québec.